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CSI: Fish and Wildlife

ASHLAND ' Life is getting a lot harder for poachers and traffickers in endangered species, thanks to a new, sophisticated, laser-oriented generation of equipment at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory.

The lab's morphology section acquired a &

36;50,000, three-dimensional laser digitizer that copies any animal part into a hard drive, where it can be scrutinized from any angle, compared with other bones, teeth or skulls and used to prove to juries that confiscated evidence indeed comes from a certain endangered species.

The digitizer, created by Pacific Survey in Medford, traditionally has been used to measure buildings and machines — saving countless hours doing it by hand with a tape measure, said Laboratory Director Ken Goddard.

The courts got so they wouldn't always accept the expert testimony of a human that, yes, this bone is from a wolf, he said. Humans can be fallible. They wanted the morphology proven by a set protocol from a much dumber version of the human brain — so we got this.

— The digitizer makes six scans of a body part from different directions, combining tens of thousands of data points into a data cloud visible on a computer screen. Thirty to 50 samples are enough to capture possible shape variations and define a species.

A new specimen can be scanned and compared to the data base for, say, the ulna (lower arm bone in the wing) of a golden eagle, which is endangered. If the new specimen is only a bald eagle (not endangered), the computer program will show a telling difference — a tiny ridge on the joint — in green.

Before the laser scanner, morphologists had to prove all that with a much more complex fractal analysis or a visual diagnosis, backed up by plentiful numbers made by caliper, said Pepper Trail, head of the lab's bird unit.

Further strengthening the lab's investigative capability are two more state-of-the-art gadgets — a new &

36;133,000 high-speed genetic sequencer and a &

36;250,000 mass spectrometer to identify blood proteins particular to any species.

With old DNA sequencers, technicians spent an hour around toxic chemicals, tediously setting up gels that usually contained tissue samples from crime scenes. The sequencer would map the order of GATC nucleotides (the genetic code of all living things), enabling identification of a particular species, said technician Dyan Straughan.

With the new sequencer, they make a solution from even the most minute trace of blood or tissue (even those not visible, but picked up on a swab), stain it with fluorescent dye and pop it in the machine, where tiny capillary tubes suck it through a laser light.

The DNA sequence appears, color-coded on a computer screen in just moments, with the creature named. More detailed sequencing allows identification of an individual animal.

If the sample from the crime scene — usually a kill site or pile of guts somewhere — can be tied to samples from a suspect's car, freezer, home or clothing, the case is established, said technician Mary Burnham Curtis.

The mass spectrometer allows rapid, accurate species identification — blasting and ionizing tiny blood samples with a laser, sending them flying up and down a chimney, then measuring their mass by their flight paths. This data is read out as spikes on a graph chart, with each species having its own particular spike map, said Mark Kirms, head of the lab's chemistry unit.

Poachers have this superstition, said Kirms. They don't wash their clothes because they think animals can smell the soap. So we can pick blood spots the size of pin pricks off their coat and tell investigators everything he's killed in the last year.

Such analysis makes the lab's evidence considerably harder to refute in court, said Goddard. In addition, field agents are getting a lot more aggressive because they're watching TV's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and forensic reality shows based on real cases.

The TV thing caught us completely off guard, said Goddard. We and other crime labs are having to work harder to keep up.

Computers and digital cameras are opening new areas of investigation for forensics labs. More and more, poachers and traffickers in endangered species — or their computer-savvy children ' are having to use computers to keep track of their business. Rules prohibit agents from confiscating whole computers, as that can have a widespread impact on legitimate businesses, potentially ruining them. But agents are allowed to mirror suspects' hard drives, copying them onto CD.

The lab also helps keep crime scene investigators honest. Unscrupulous CSI agents may doctor up photos taken at the scene, digitally inserting damning evidence not in the original picture. The lab has learned to spot any changes in embedded data in the original picture.

It's our job, Goddard noted, to keep things ethical.

Pepper Trail, head of the bird unit at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, demonstrates how to use the new three-dimensional Laser Digitizer to create an image of an ulna bone from an eagle. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven